I was doing some of my readings for class, my landscape archaeology class to be exact. They were discussing roads in ancient Egypt, and how they were not only used for economic transport of goods, but for military patrols and religious ritual pathways. For some reason, this brought to mind some of my earlier dabbling in belief and the supernatural, and led me to reconsider my current stance.
My dad had been brought up in a southern Baptist church of some sort, and he hated going to church. Therefore, he never pushed going to church on us. However, his sociopolitical views were still heavily based on these beliefs, as I may be revealing in later posts. But for the majority of our childhood, he did very little in the way of moralistic or religious teaching. The main lessons he wanted to pass down to me and my sister was to obey the Golden Rule (do unto others what you would have done to you); conversely, he also taught that our family motto was “Our family doesn’t start fights, but we finish ’em.”
He let us read pretty much anything we wanted, and our main access to religion was various Story Bibles, or a ‘Book of Virtues.’ I preferred the Book of Virtues, which combined short stories from a wide variety of fiction and history to demonstrate and teach things like Honesty, Loyalty, Hard Work, and Generosity- ironically, a lot of the things I hold dear in the My Little Pony setting (Kindness, Generosity, Honesty, Loyalty, and Laughter… Magic in a little bit.)
I did enjoy one version in particular of the Story Bible we had- where it combined the Biblical stories, and in the margins detailed historical and archaeological details about life at that period. But these books were fairly marginal- the things I liked reading about most were animals. I knew more about dinosaurs and animals when I was eight than a lot of my fellow students know now, unless they are taking specific classes in biology and zoology.
When my dad remarried after seven years of raising us on his own, the woman he brought into our lives changed everything. She was a Russian artist from Izhevsk, with her small daughter. While my dad was teaching us about what he knew about the ‘secular world,’ she brought a new aspect, and unlocked our imaginations. She was a deep and abiding lover of fantasy fiction, and encouraged us to read and learn about works like Lord of the Rings, the Brothers Lionheart, the Chronicles of Narnia, Amber, and so much more. While she taught my sisters to use their creativity in their artwork, for me she unlocked it in my writing and narrative imagination. Until about a few years ago, when I decided to shift to a science fiction work, I had been writing and rewriting a fantasy story- which led me to my brief but passionate involvement with religion.
We had returned to the states and were living in a marina in Miami. My mother was beginning to start the pattern of almost daily shopping trips that eventually would lead to the dissolution of our family, but for now it was a great expansion of my available literature to read. I think it was in this period I first read “The Once and Future King,” now my favorite book, but for the interest of this post I will point out the book that led me to analyze my spiritual beliefs. I forgot the title, but it was a book detailing ‘white magic’. It caught my eye, and I bought it in order to gain ideas for my fantasy story.
I forget the majority of the content, but the main theme of the book was invoking various angels and spirits for help. The main thing I used it for was cleansing and divination. The cleansing ritual was my first and only exposure to ritual behavior, and I would diligently stand in my little cabin, inscribing pentagrams in the air in the four directions and whispering the names of God/angels (I would need to squish my arm a little bit to get the southern one, because there wasn’t room. It was probably a psychosomatic effect, but my room did indeed feel a little more clear, as the tensions in my family were beginning to take deeper root.
The divination took the form of ring dowsing. I had a gold ring, representing Vilya, the Elven Ring of Elrond (mom was a BIG Lord of the Rings fan- and so am I!) and I would tie a length of thread to it and knock it against a goblet-like cup, asking questions. The power of this was inexplicable, even to the day. We would test the method by hiding objects somewhere on the boat, and then use the dowsing to figure out its location by narrowing the parameters: like we would ask, “Is it in the aft half?” and with a negative response, would ask, “Is it in the main cabin?” and so on- and it would lead us to the hidden item. This is what I was thinking about when I was doing my reading- my thought had turned to applying this on a landscape, like a criminal investigation or archaeological site.
We asked a great many other things, where we discovered I had the greatest power; my ‘guardian angel’ who was answering my questions was just like me, only with no sense of humor; and so on. There was one question, however, that completely changed my point of view, and made me abandon it wholly.
I had been reading the Bible parallel to this, since I had been given a very handsome edition of the King James Bible. I had never studied it very rigorously, but this was one of the first times I was reading it straight through, in all of its archaic glory. I came to the part in… Judges? Kings? The bit where it says this: “There shall not be found among you . . . anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.” [Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (please forgive me if my citation is wrong, I had a hard enough time with MLA formatting!)]
A little unnerved, I tried to rationalize with myself- I thought I was using this power under God’s angels, that this was different than what the Bible was discussing. But, one day I asked the dowser a fateful question: “Am I going to hell for doing this?” Two knocks: A yes.
I never performed that dowsing ritual again, and soon discarded the book of white magic. My belief in miracles and power shifted from that book to the Bible, and I read it fervently. I had no one to teach me what it meant, so I combined it with what little opinions I had from my family, to form my translation of it. I saw the world around me as corrupt, sinful; everyone was obsessed with sex and sexiness (it couldn’t possibly because I was sixteen and starting to notice, right? Didn’t help that we were in Miami too, where people dress scantily pretty much out of necessity.) I began to hate myself for masturbating, and when I even went to my dad for help, he gave me the disappointing answer that it was ‘natural.’ I became, for the first time, very disenchanted with the modern culture, and began to search for alternatives.
This is when I considered becoming a monk.
I had been reading for my homeschool about the kindness and inspiration of the Order of St. Francis, and about the scholarly guardianship of the Order of St. Benedict. I avidly read the Rules for both of these orders, and found a lifestyle of predictability, scholarship, and worship that greatly appealed to me. I even contacted the abbott of the Florida chapter of the Benedictines, asking how to begin, even though I was too young. However, being stuck with my family and lacking independence, that eventually died out.
I have forgotten what started my decline in my loosely Christian beliefs. A lot of people have a kind of revelation, where they realize something is wrong, just doesn’t compute with the God they know and love. For me, I think it was a book of philosophy where they detailed the beliefs of the Enlightenment Deists. That kind of view, where God has set things in motion and kind of lets it loose to do what it will, clicked with me with much stronger force than anything else had. It seems like a good way to synthesize the supernatural effects I had observed, and the scientific knowledge and perspective I was accruing. It also fit well with the multicultural knowledge I was gaining- how can you explain a single Deity, who damns nonbelievers to hell, when all over the world there have always been people believing in their own thing, and all throughout history as well? What happened to the billions of people who died before Abraham was even born? It only makes sense that there is some higher spiritual power or powers- whether we call it God, Coyote, Allah, Vishnu, or Bastet, what matters is how the natural world was set in motion and how we comport ourselves on it. For matters after death, I believe that the individual goes where she believes she will go. This is why I am so afraid for fundamentalist Baptists and other Christians of that fervor- they focus so much on Hell, I fear that’s where their psyches will imprison themselves after death.
Meanwhile, this belief frees me to continue my scientific endeavors with no conflict between the natural and the supernatural. Understanding evolution has no contention- some force set it in motion, or provided the structure of DNA necessary to enable adaptation- hell, maybe even the scenario of the lightning striking the primordial sea and allowing the fusion of the first organic compounds was an act of ‘Godliness’. This perspective, which I guess may be called Deistic Pantheism, has been a great boon to me when I began studying anthropology, where I readily understood and began to apply the principles of cultural relativism. It also allows me to question, criticize, and investigate without being hindered by any specific beliefs- including the perspective of atheism.